Blowing it

Paul Hanley, the StarPhoenix‘s answer to David Suzuki without the charm, pens what is probably his most cogent, the most useful, the most reasonable column yet.

I must fisk it.

It pays to leave Sask.’s uranium in the ground

By Paul Hanley, Special to The StarPheonix [sic] March 22, 2011

First off, I know I’m just being petty, but it would be nice if Hanley or his enabling editors could properly spell the name of their own paper.

It’s too early to say how much of the uranium we have sold to Japan will be blowing back to Saskatchewan in the coming months, or what effect it will have.

I’m guessing that the blowing uranium will have absolutely zero effect, as uranium from Japan will not blow to Saskatchewan or anywhere else. Even if a complete meltdown were to occur (which it won’t) [it did but no massive release occurred–ed.], the uranium fuel will still be contained within the reactor site. Hanley is probably referring to radiation from the damaged Fukushima reactors, the significant negative impact of which to human health of the public to date has been zilch.

But as I write this on March 20, the situation in four Japanese reactors experiencing explosions, leaks and meltdowns teeters on the brink of disaster. Radiation is being detected in Japan’s food and water and as far off as California.

Radiation can also be detected in your own garden, Hanley. Some context on what this level and type of radiation means would be helpful to the reader, although probably not as helpful to his agenda.

In the light of last week’s events, Saskatchewan’s boast that it’s the world’s Number 1 uranium producer rings hollow.

That’s probably because Kazakhstan is the world’s number one uranium producer, not Saskatchewan.

I don’t know about you, but as a lifetime resident of this province I am not proud that our mines supplied the fuel for the Japanese reactors, just as I am not proud that in the 1950s and 1960s they supplied the uranium for the West’s nuclear arsenal.

Hanley preferred the Soviet nuclear arsenal to that of the West.

This latest nuclear accident the experts said couldn’t happen …

Hold up. Who said this accident “couldn’t happen”? Backup systems were in place and survived the earthquake, but they weren’t designed to handle the unprecedented—and unlikely—tsunami. But, as with every other human endeavour, nuclear reactors contain inherent risk, and their safety systems should be and will be looked by regulatory authorities around the world.

In fact, the only scientists I know with unwavering uncertainty are those propagating the allegedly impending anthropogenic global warming catastrophe.

… begs the question, “Is Saskatchewan’s ongoing investment in the uranium industry really worth it?”

This begs the answer, “Yes”.

We should seriously consider this because as Saskatchewan and Canadian taxpayers we continue to pour money into a uranium-nuclear industry, which—all things considered—has provided a negative return on our investment.

For a positive return on investment, what we need are more wind turbines.

On March 2, Saskatchewan announced another $30 million would go into nuclear research, including research into nuclear reactors. A week earlier, it had announced an additional $36.2 million would have to be spent to clean up the mess from an earlier investment in the industry. Canada was expected to commit equal funding to deal with the “Cold War legacy mines” of the 1950s and ’60s.Taxpayers are left with the tab for the cleanup because all the uranium companies from that period have conveniently disappeared. How much we will have to spend by the time the job is done, if it ever really is done, remains to be seen.

Today’s mining companies must have financing in place to cover decommissioning and reclamation expenses should the company “conveniently disappear”. The uranium industry also spends at least $5 million toward reclamation every year, whether at operations or decommissioned sites.

Which renders moot the rest of Hanley’s argument to abandon uranium mining, but we’ll carry on nonetheless.

According to the Saskatchewan Research Council, Project CLEANS (Cleanup of Abandoned Northern Sites) is a multi-year project to assess and reclaim the Gunnar, Lorado and 36 additional satellite uranium mine and mill sites in northern Saskatchewan. A government representative told me last week that approximately $11 million has been spent on the Gunnar mine alone so far, but he seemed unclear as to what the total cost of Project CLEANS would be, saying only that government was committed to spend whatever was necessary to complete the job.

When I do the math, it looks like the cost will be at least $83.5 million (assuming $11 million has been spent, and the province and federal government will each add another $36.2 million.) But who knows if the costs won’t escalate further.

A simple Google search will tell you that the CLEANS project is expected to cost $47.9 million, which is roughly the “approximately $11 million” spent plus $36.2 million from the province, give or take a few hundred thou. Good investigative work there, Hanley.

I wasn’t able to find revenue figures from the 1950s and ’60s, but my educated guess is that net revenues—if there were any—to the province and Canada from the northern uranium mines of that period were far less than the cost of the current cleanup.

Paul isn’t very good at math, and he isn’t very good at investigative research. Educated guesses aren’t estimates; they are guesses. Someone was producing something in the 1950s and ’60s; you’ve already told us they did. Do your job and tell us what they produced, Nancy Drew.

This opinion is based on research done in the 1990s that showed the cost of government investment in the uranium Crowns, including interest on borrowing—plus annual expenditures on infrastructure, regulating and monitoring the industry, and related social costs—had resulted in a net loss for Saskatchewan taxpayers on that investment.

If this is true, it doesn’t surprise me, which is why the provincial and federal uranium mining Crowns were privatized—because state-controlled enterprises generally don’t have an incentive to make returns on investments like private or free-market enterprise organizations do.

Had the hundreds of millions invested into uranium companies been put in the bank at average interest rates for the period they would have earned $1.25 billion. Instead, the province lost $370 million on its investment, making the total of actual business losses and lost opportunities $1.62 billion. That’s just to 1990. As far as I know, we are still carrying and paying interest on at least a portion of that old debt to this day.

Now, Hanley might be confusing the investment from all uranium mining efforts as being solely borne by the Saskatchewan people. Gunnar and Lorado, for example, were private enterprises. Eldorado was a federal Crown. Only the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation was a provincial Crown.

(I say “might be” because my alternative theory is that Hanley added the $370 million figure invested by the province with to the $1.25 billion, which I am assuming is the same, original $370 million amortized to 1990. It’s like buying a house ten years ago at $200,000, which has increased in market value to $300,000, and trying to sell it for $500,000.  But Hanley couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Perhaps if he cited his reference, I wouldn’t have to resort to name-calling.)

Regardless, if Hanley is looking for measured economic impact, rather than estimated guesses, the capital, development and exploration investment as a result of uranium mining in the province between 1980 and 2009 was in excess of $5 billion. In addition, taxes and royalties paid in Saskatchewan in 2009 were $145 million alone, and that was a relatively slow year.

Economically, uranium mining is a tremendous and overwhelming net benefit to the province.

By the way, royalties produced by the wind energy industry in 2009: $0.

Adding insult to injury, the Conference Board of Canada reported last summer that after 60 years of uranium mining, northern Saskatchewan is the second-poorest region of Canada.

And with Hanley’s help, northern Saskatchewan could the poorest region, damn it! In 2009, the uranium industry paid $75 million in salary and benefits to residents of Saskatchewan’s north, and an additional $285 million was paid for goods and services to northern-based contractors. $5.5 million was donated directly to provincial community and charitable organizations, and the industry handed out more than $400,000 in scholarships to students.

Therefore, if Hanley were to replace the uranium mining industry in this province, he would have to find $365 million in salary, benefits, goods and services for northern workers and businesses, plus close to $6 million in donations and scholarships—without, mind you, the more than $145 million in annual taxes and royalties paid to the province.

Add to that the billions lost on Canadian taxpayers’ investment in nuclear power, and present and future environmental costs, and it seems clear that it would be in our and the world’s best interest to leave this awful stuff in the ground.

And it would be in the StarPhoenix’s best interest to bury the awful Hanley even further in the back pages, if not abandon him altogether. His argument against uranium mining isn’t just wrong, it’s irresponsibly so.

As I’ve said earlier, I work in the nuclear industry, so you’re welcome to take my opinion as you will. I haven’t been asked to talk about this by my employer, and in fact I’m somewhat reluctant to share my viewpoint lest someone perceive this as some sort of astroturf by the nuclear industry to counter a no-name columnist in the back of a relatively minor small-city newspaper. But share it, I will.

I don’t believe in nuclear energy because I work in the industry; I work in the industry because I believe in nuclear energy. It’s not the perfect energy source, but given cost, pollution, reliability, there are few alternatives that can compete against the power potential of the uranium nucleus.

Until he shows otherwise, as far as I care, Hanley can just blow.

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